Most of Nyesha Smith’s friends don’t know she has multiple sclerosis. What they know is that she’ll catch them when they fall.
As a “spot” in the Friendly High School cheerleading squad in Prince George’s County, Md., Nyesha tosses and catches “flyers” in such stunts as the Lib. That’s where someone stands like the Statue of Liberty, but on one leg — and on top of someone else.
“I’m the person holding them up,” said Nyesha, 16. “When people fall down out of a stunt I have to carry them, so the pressure of their weight falls on me.”
Neat trick for somebody who, at age 13, had a seizure and loss of feeling in her legs that led to an MS diagnosis. She quit running track and dancing with the Washington Ballet (as much because she couldn’t remember the steps as because of physical weakness), but bounced back after finding the right disease-modifying drug. By sophomore year she was a National English Honor Society member, student government vice president, self-described “math geek” and aspiring veterinarian; in her junior year she’ll be the Patriots’ cheering captain.
She’s also a Walk MS captain: along with her mother Denise Smith-Williams, other relatives and members of their church, Nyesha formed the Faith Walkers. Nyesha says she’s overwhelmed on walk day when she sees how many people come to support her and everybody living with MS.
“It’s amazing. You never realize how many people know you and how many peoples’ lives you’ve touched,” she said.
The team also serves as an extended family Nyesha can call on if she has an exacerbation while Denise is traveling for her job as an executive with the American Counseling Association. One of the many ways Denise supports Nyesha academically is to remind her of due dates by text message when Nyesha’s memory slips.
“I keep her in my pocket,” Nyesha quipped.
As far as Nyesha knows, she is the only kid at Friendly with MS. She has only told a few schoolmates because she fears the reaction she’ll get from the rest, and loves connecting with other young people with MS at the summer Teen Adventure Camp organized by Stony Brook University’s National Pediatric MS Center: “It’s crazy how great it is. You know how many people with MS or other disabilities don’t believe they can do stuff? Well, this camp puts you to the test!”
Nyesha wants to switch back to track eventually and run at the University of Maryland, where she already has a small scholarship waiting for her. Denise admits she’s nervous Nyesha may have an exacerbation in the middle of an event someday, but says it makes no sense to restrain an ambitious person because of something that might happen. So the cheerleader’s mom has become something of a cheerleader herself.
“I’m her biggest fan,” Denise said.